By Dustin Luca
---- — Andover High students could soon need to take an alcohol breath test to attend school events such as dances, graduation and the prom.
The high school’s School Council is calling for a test run of mandatory breathalyzer testing. Andover High School Principal Chris Lord is slated to present the proposal to the School Committee tonight, Thursday. The proposal would restrict attendance at the first school event in 2013 to those who agree to take a breathalyzer test prior to admission.
Lord declined to comment on the proposal until it is presented to the School Committee. Lyn Dwyer, co-president of the AHS Parent Advisory Committee, declined to comment on the proposal when reached by phone.
Brian Wivell, student liaison to the School Committee and a student member of the School Council, said the proposal reached consensus support from the council. The council is made up of Lord, three students, three parents, two teachers, another member of the high school faculty and a community member.
The proposal “will eliminate a certain population of the school from going to the dances,” Wivell said, “but it might also open up these dances to a different crowd of people that might have been intimidated or afraid to go.”
In a memo to the superintendent, Lord said the school “is strongly committed to providing an alcohol- and drug-free school environment for all students, faculty, and staff. This has been a challenge since in previous years, large numbers of alcohol abuse cases have occurred at dances.”
In the 2010-11 school year, students lost 93 days of school because of alcohol use, according to Lord. That number jumped to 127 for the 2011-12 school year, a 36 percent increase.
In the proposed plan, “all students attending the dance/school event will be given a breathalyzer test which requires the students to lightly blow in the direction of the device from a distance of 4-6 inches,” Lord wrote.
If a student receives a positive reading from the test, a second test would be done to ensure the positive reading isn’t a false positive, according to Lord.
If a student tests positive after two readings, his or her parents would be contacted to pick up the student from the event.
Other disciplinary consequences would be issued as outlined in the school’s student handbook. Those consequences include a three-day suspension and completion of two outside family counseling sessions. Student athletes violating the school’s chemical health policy are also subject to rules established by the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association.
If a student refuses to test, the student’s parents also would be “notified and asked to transport the student from the dance/event,” Lord wrote.
Similar programs already are in place in other Massachusetts school districts, including Belmont, Danvers, Hamilton-Wenham and Ipswich, according to Lord.
Those towns “are among some of the communities with longstanding mandatory breathalyzer policies for school dances that report a 100-percent reduction in student alcohol infractions since policy implementation,” he said.
If the pilot program moves forward, after it is completed, the high school’s School Council will decide whether to make a recommendation to the School Committee “supporting and formalizing the breathalyzer policy going forward,” Lord said.
But for Wivell, drinking is not the only issue that needs to be discussed. He said that a crackdown on certain types of dancing has turned away some students from school dances.
“There has been a noted decrease in attendance or signups for the most recent dance to the point that it had to be cancelled,” he said.
The dance he’s referring to is the high school’s annual Holly Ball, previously a popular holiday event at the school.
“The last dance was the first dance where there were chaperones perusing, actively stopping dancing inappropriately,” he said.
Last school year, Andover High School dances made news in the Townsman after there was a community meeting on a form of dancing known as grinding. Also known as “freak dancing,” two people participate in the dance by rubbing against one another in a sexually evocative manner.
Meetings were held to talk about the topic, many composed of school administrators and concerned parents who heard the dances described to them by their children.
While Wivell isn’t arguing for an end to punishing those who dance inappropriately, he said the problem needs to be addressed differently.
“The dances don’t necessarily have to revert back to the chaos they’re known for, but there has to be an understanding between administrators and students on how to accomplish having a fun dance while still having a responsible hang-out on a Friday night,” he said. “Just, once again, open up the conversation. But this time, with more student involvement.”
The School Committee is scheduled to meet in its conference room tonight, Thursday, at 7 p.m. to talk about the mandatory breath test. The meeting will be held in the committee’s meeting room on the second floor of the School Administration Building, 30 Whittier Court, above the Andover Senior Center, and behind Town Offices at 36 Bartlet St.